Lena & Pharaoh Sanders org pic

VILLAGE OF PHARAOHS: Pharaoh Sanders and Nova Zupreme at The Iridium in New York City

There were quite a few 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2019; the Moon landing, Woodstock, Easy Rider (film) and Sesame Street to name a few. But there was one other golden anniversary of equal importance that was completely lost in the shuffle by both historians, musicologists and the media this year; Pharaoh Sanders pioneering and revolutionary Impulse recording Karma

With the recording of Karma (recorded in February,1969 and released that May), Pharaoh set in motion a new hybrid of urgent, rhythmic, high energy, counter-culture free jazz just before the dawn of the Woodstock nation. A record that reasserted the relevancy and importance of jazz, enabling others like Miles Davis, Fela, Bob Marley and countless other musicians to artistically express themselves in new ways musically, politically and spiritually. But in order to fully grasp how Karma came into existence, we have to step back almost four years before it was recorded. 

Pharaoh Sanders’ musical journey to Karma began on June 28, 1965, when he was tapped by John Coltrane to join his famous quartet. It was an enormous break for him, who had been economically struggling for years, living on the streets of New York City and at times not eating enough. He moved to NYC in 1962 from Oakland, California and went by his birth name Farrell Sanders. In 1964, when Sun Ra was looking for someone to replace tenor John Gilmore who had temporarily left the Arkersta. Ra gave Sanders a place to live, clothes and bestowed him the name- “Pharaoh” Sanders- something he never did with other musicians in the Arkestra other then himself. 

Through Ra, Pharaoh developed both his melodic and his over blowing signature “scream” sound. That year Albert Ayler (tenor) began screaming around New York City jazz clubs, Fellow saxophonist Archie Schepp, who was playing pretty loud by 1964, described thinking when he first heard Ayler from a front room bar hat “a bomb” went off under the stage in the jam room in the back. 

Sanders elevated Ayler’s scream and took it almost as far it was humanly possible to go. His loud overbearing screaming would chase folks out of the club, an affect Sun Ra deliberately executed to filter out “the weak” from the venue, allowing them to really play out. 

Meanwhile, in January 1965 John Coltrane had just released A Love Supreme (recorded in December, 1964), receiving the highest praises from the jazz world of an already highly lauded career. First, with Miles Davis and then on his own in 1962 with his quartet consisting of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). The Coltrane quartet soared and took jazz improvisation to a whole new level of mastery. Tyner’s complex chord intervals enabled Coltrane to solo at new heights, a formula later copied by Grateful Dead guitarists Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia. 

Two years earlier, in 1962, Coltrane happened to be walking down a street in Copenhagen, Denmark when he began hearing sounds he never heard before coming from the Café Montmartre. He walked in, sat down and saw the Cecil Taylor trio (Jimmy Lynos alto sax, Sunny Murray, drums) with a special guest: Albert Ayler. Coltrane was blown away by Ayler’s over blowing, Taylor’s dissonant piano playing and Murray’s “broken” beat. Taylor was also knocked out by Ayler, who had never heard him play until he hit the stage that night. Ayler had tried to work with other jazz musicians in Sweden, but the lopsided recordings sound off. His intense soloing just did not work with walking bass lines. With Murray and Taylor it clicked and Ayler flew back to New York excited to share his “new sound” to others.

 Coltrane was always interested in players with new styles like Orentte Coleman and Eric Dolphy. He also liked Gilmore and another Sun Ra Arkestra fixture, Marshall Allen. A few weeks after releasing  A Love Supreme, Coltrane went to the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem to see Malcolm X speak. It turned out to be one his last speaking engagements. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated in that same ballroom. 

Coltrane, like most in the jazz community was riveted by Malcolm’s murder. Coming on the heels of President Kennedy’s assassination two years earlier in 1963, the national political landscape was becoming increasingly bleak. In order to express his dismay musically, Coltrane turned to the raw, explosive free jazz scene to channel it. 

First came Ascension, a 40 minute scream fest that sounds like a battalion of fire engines speeding down the streets warning the town it’s on fire. Along with his usual quartet and Pharaoh, Coltrane included a few top players of the free jazz scene. He wanted to have a second drummer on the record, but Jones would not allow it, telling Coltrane he could handle it himself. 

Other cracks in the Coltrane’s quartet started to emerge. Tyner did not like Coltrane’s new musical direction. He told Coltrane he could not even hear himself play with all the cacophony of both his and Pharaoh’s screaming tenors howling over everything. Around this time, Coltrane was also experimenting with LSD and in October,1 1965, he and “some” his band mates took acid and went into the studio to record OM*. The next day, Coltrane went back to listen to what they recorded and he was horrified by what he heard. Coltrane buried the recording, but Impulse later released it posthumously in 1968. Two weeks later in Los Angeles, Coltrane and Pharaoh recoded a later tile trackKulu se Mama with drummer Juno Lewis. 

In November of 1965, Coltrane’s quartet along with Pharaoh and another drummer, Rashied Ali, hit the studio for Meditations. Both Tyner and Jones were not pleased with the results and quit soon after. Coltrane replaced Jones with Ali and his new wife, Alice on piano. Back home in Dix Hills, New York during the holiday break , Coltrane composed Peace On Earth. On Groundhog Day, 1966  he brought his new group to Coast Records studio -a small one story building on 1340 Mission St. in downtown San Francisco that still stands amongst the skyscrapers surrounding it-  to record the song and few others that included Buddhist and Christian prayers interwoven with the music. These recordings, minus Peace On Earth, were posthumously released by Impulse titled Cosmic Music. The melodic, short bursts of screams appeared as if Coltrane was trying to condense the soloing a bit in the studio while maintaining the intensity. They are a stricking set of songs- maybe even some of Coltrane’s more important works.

The release of Ascension that winter was the point when jazz critics turned on Coltrane, condemning the music he created with Pharaoh. And everything else he did from that point forward was equally misunderstood. Not in the least deterred, Coltrane continued his musical journey with Pharaoh.

Coltrane and Pharaoh first performed Peace On Earth in Japan in July of 1966 and was well received, even greeted by hundreds at the airport. They both along with Alice Coltrane visited and prayed at Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Those concert recordings were later released by Impulse titled Live In Japan. That summer, Coltrane stretched songs to 50 minutes or more. Later that year, Coltrane bumped into his old boss Miles Davis and explained while soloing he goes into a trance and has trouble stopping. Davis offered a suggestion: “Take the mother fucking horn out of your mouth.”

The following year, John Coltrane died at age 39. Alice, Pharaoh, along with Garrison and Ali tried to carry on without Coltrane, forcing Alice to compose music of her own. Sanders focused on his music as well as supporting Alice Coltrane’s musical direction into eastern mysticism. Sanders wanted to push the musical and spiritual boundaries as much as Coltrane, but envisioned something more inclusive. 

In February 1969, Sanders entered the RCA Studios in New York City with a large ensemble to record Karma. Sanders aimed for unifying musical setting to showcase his compositions. The first track, The Creator Has A Master Plan is a 32 minute euphoric blast of joy, pain, sorrow and rebirth, a hybrid mix of free jazz, African polyrhythms, gospel and folk that seamlessly reflects the social upheavals of the the decade with every note.Karma may not be as deep as Meditations, but Pharaoh’s attempt to cast a much wider net for more listeners to grasp Coltrane’s spiritual message was certainly noble. When it worked and the album sold well, reaching into the counter-culture consumer base and jazz aficionados alike, Pharaoh realized he achieved something beyond what he had hoped for.  Even Louie Armstrong covered The Creator Has A Master Plan live at his final shows.

The crossover appeal of Karma led to Miles Davis rethinking the structures of his music. He recorded  Bitches Brew in late August( released March 30, 1970), creating a whole new jazz “fusion” genre. Pharaoh responded with what may be his magum opus  Black Unity in 1971, further cementing his legacy as one of the greatest jazz musicians and composers to directly emerge from the 1960’s.

While Coltrane’s final years of music may still stir up a heated debate amongst jazz critics, Pharaoh Sanders post Coltrane works -most notably Karma– stands out as one of the finest records of a turbulent decade ripe with plenty of great music. 

* On December 27, 2019 outside the Iridium in New York City, Pharaoh confirmed to The Black Star News that “some of us” in the band, including Coltrane were on LSD when recording OM on 10/1/65 at Camelot Sound Studios in Lynwood, Washington, almost two months before The Grateful Dead (the know as the Warlocks) first played music on LSD on 11/27/65 at Ken Babbs house in Soquel, California. On 12/4/65 the Grateful Dead played their first show with that name in San Jose, California on LSD( this time they brought their own music gear)


Pharaoh Sanders: The Creator has A Master Plan

John Coltrane (& Pharaoh Sanders): OM

John Coltrane (& Pharaoh Sanders): Meditations  

John Coltrane (& Pharaoh Sanders): Cosmic Music

John Coltrane (& Pharaoh Sanders): LIVE In Japan  

Pharaoh Sanders: Black Unity  

Pharaoh Sanders LIVE 12/27/19 @ The Iridium, NYC

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